I just listened to Kumar Sangakarra’s Lord’s Lecture, an hour-long address every cricket-loving fan should download. It’s a truly ambitious speech that seeks to cover the history of Sri Lanka’s cricket, especially from 1996 to present. While most of the reaction has focused on Sangakarra’s criticism of Sri Lanka Cricket, the governing board, he devotes (by my count) about 10 minutes to the current administration’s foibles.
Say what you want about Sangakarra, but he is a smart man. He spends most of his address couching his criticism in strongly nationalist terms, offering ode after ode to Sri Lanka’s special “identity” and the greatness of players like Sanath Jayasuriya (now a political bigwig indulging the very tactics Sangakarra deplores in his speech). He was careful enough to cover all his bases, and now that he’s likely to be recalled by the Sports Minister, he can point to other moments in his text for his defense.
But what a history! Listening to the speech, you get a sense of the difficulty of being an international player from a South Asian country, especially due to the enlarged role of politics in almost everything you do, from the petty to the fundamental. Imagine a player like Murali: an Indian Tamil in a war-torn country; a much-hated figure in the West, constantly challenged abroad, but also scrutinized at every level at home. Consider this team’s recent past as well — a tsunami; a terrorist attack (described in vivid detail by Sangakarra); and the brutal end of the civil war.
I do have some quick notes and questions: 1) Sangakarra speaks often of a Sri Lankan ‘way’ of playing cricket. It’s true that part of cricket’s charm is its diversity, and people in the West Indies used to play differently from those in, say, India. It’s an open question, however, if that diversity will survive the game’s modernization, driven by coaches with video data and disciplined physiotherapists. What are we losing here?
1A) A related, but more difficult, question is whether or not such talk — like all nationalisms — stems from a crude and essentialist description of self-image. Is there really a Sri Lankan way of playing cricket? Is there an Indian style? If I were to describe it, would I risk setting up particular categories that seek to exclude as much as include? I understand the impulse — we want to set up our identity after centuries of colonization, whose chief discourse involved an unrelenting attack on local cultures. But need we construct false identities in response?
2) Part of the attraction of Sangakarra’s speech is his discussion of the Sri Lankan dressing room. In the early 2000s, he suggests that the team was driven by hierarchies and a collection of individuals, some of who “crossed the line” by interfering with the board and selectors. He then goes on to discuss Sri Lanka’s failing club structure, and the huge discretion afforded to its Sports Minister, who can dismiss whole teams on a whim. I wish more players would say what he did. It’s a huge risk, but imagine someone of Dravid or Tendulkar or Laxman’s stature making similar noises in India. Or is that a risk too big to take, even for them?